Quebec's education minister has sparked controversy after posing for a picture with Malala Yousafzai, then saying the education advocate would not be allowed to become a teacher in the Canadian province unless she removed her headscarf.
Jean-Francois Roberge initially raised eyebrows after tweeting a picture of himself last Friday with Yousafzai during their meeting in France, where they discussed education and international development.
Journalist Salim Nadim Valji asked Roberge on Twitter whether Yousafzai, who wears an Islamic headscarf, could teach in Quebec despite a ban on religious symbols in the public sector.
Belle rencontre avec @Malala Yousafzai, récipiendaire du prix Nobel de la Paix, pour discuter d’accès à l’éducation et de développement international. @UNESCO
5:21 PM - Jul 5, 2019
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Roberge responded on July 5 and said it would be an honor for his province to have Yousafzai teach, but “as in France… as well as in other open and tolerant countries, teachers can’t wear religious signs while performing their duties.”
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His response sparked criticism, including from Canadian MP Omar Alghabra, who said: “No government should ever tell a woman how to dress.”
Premier François Legault addressed the topic on Monday, and reiterated that Quebec made a decision to prevent teachers from wearing religious symbols.
“People who wear religious symbols, it doesn’t mean they don’t have good values,” he said. “But in Quebec, we have made a choice in favor of secularism, that people in positions of authority can’t wear religious symbols, to clearly separate the state and religion.”
If Yousafzai refused to remove her headscarf on duty, Legault added, she would not be able to teach.
Quebec Premier François Legault said Nobel Peace Prize laureate and renowned education advocate Malala Yousafzai would not be allowed to teach in the province unless she removed her headscarf, which is a religious garment and symbol.
Quebec Premier François Legault said Nobel Peace Prize laureate and renowned education advocate Malala Yousafzai would not be allowed to teach in the province unless she removed her headscarf, which is a religious garment and symbol. (AFP/Getty)
Quebec’s legislature adopted Bill 21 last month, banning public sector workers from wearing religious symbols such as turbans, headscarves or kippas. These public sector workers not only include teachers, but also judges and police officers. The Canadian Human Rights Commission said months before the bill passed that it targets people for their religious beliefs and limits opportunities to participate in society, creating “barriers for future generations.”
A spokeswoman for Maryam Monsef, the Canadian minister for women and gender equality, said politicians were not responsible for deciding appropriate and inappropriate dress, elaborating that Canada is already a secular state reflected in its institutions.
“This new law undermines fundamental rights and individual freedoms because it forces some people to choose between their religion and their job,” she said.
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While the federal government criticized the bill, few steps have been taken to challenge it.
In this Jan. 25, 2018, file photo, Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai attends an annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
In this Jan. 25, 2018, file photo, Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai attends an annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, File)
Daniel Schow, spokesman for Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, said Yousafzai stands as a champion for human rights and is a model for girls around the world who are fighting for access to education.
“A free society must always protect the fundamental rights of its citizens and must not prevent its citizens from expressing themselves,” said Schow. He added if Scheer were elected prime minister, he would never introduce such a bill.
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Yousafzai was born in the Swat region of Pakistan, where she became a symbol for girls' education when she was shot in the head by the Taliban at the age of 15 while riding a bus on the way home from school. She survived the attack and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 for her work in advocating for young girls' rights to education.
Now 21, Yousafzai runs the Malala Fund, which raises money to help girls around the world receive educations, while studying philosophy, politics and economics at the University of Oxford.
Fox News' Morgan Cheung contributed to this report